Outside the Comfort Zone

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2019-02-05 02:52Z by Steven

Outside the Comfort Zone

The New Republic

Jillian Steinhauer
New York, New York

Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981. Courtesy of The Eileen Harris Norton Collection/MOMA

Adrian Piper’s art plays with identity and confronts defensiveness.

In 2012, the artist Adrian Piper made an announcement. The news was posted on her archive’s web site, with a cheerful portrait of her, head tilted, eyes warm and open, smiling. The photo would look like an ordinary head shot if it were not for the unnatural coloring—Piper’s hairline is orange, and her skin is an eggplant shade of purple. At the bottom, she included a note:

Dear Friends,

For my 64th birthday, I have decided to change my racial and nationality designations. Henceforth, my new racial designation will be neither black nor white but rather 6.25% grey, honoring my 1/16th African heritage. And my new nationality designation will be not African American but rather Anglo-German American, reflecting my preponderantly English and German ancestry. Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control!

Artwork Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment,2012 by Adrian Piper

She signed and dated it below.

On first reading, this announcement—which as an artwork is titled Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment—appears absurd: A person can’t retire their official identity and endow themselves with a new one simply by writing a note; Piper points to the futility of such an endeavor in her last line. But, like so much of her work, Thwarted Projects throws a challenge to the viewer: What new and liberating possibilities might appear if we took this conceptual exercise seriously?…

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Adrian Piper as African American Artist

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2019-02-05 02:49Z by Steven

Adrian Piper as African American Artist

American Art
Volume 20, Number 3 (Fall 2006)
DOI: 10.1086/511097

John P. Bowles, Associate Professor of African American Art History
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

African‐American artist Adrian Piper has repeatedly staged her own racial transformation in order to unsettle the racist attitudes of her artworks’ American viewers. Piper looks white but in her video installation Cornered, for example, she tells viewers, ”I’m black.” Over the course of the video the decision to call one’s self black or white becomes a moral issue rather than a simple matter of genetics or parentage. In the process, Piper casts the possibility of racial identity into doubt.

Piper’s self‐transformations figure the fears and fantasies that define the myth of American whiteness. Citing the unspoken “one drop” rule of racialized identity—according to which a person with only ”one drop” of African blood running through his or her veins is considered black—Piper challenges the viewer of Cornered: ”You are probably black. … What are you going to do?” Piper stages herself as an object for inspection, but in a way that ultimately reveals less about the artist than about the viewer’s own attitudes towards race. She identifies miscegenation and folkloric accounts of passing as the founding crisis for a pseudoscientific race consciousness in order to challenge Americans to take personal responsibility for the history of racism in the United States.

Adrian Piper once rebuked an an critic for declaring that it “is crucial to know” in approaching her work “that Piper is a black artist who can easily ‘pass’ for white.” In fact. Piper responded, “‘black’ and ‘white’ are among the terms my work critiques.” This statement would seem to preclude her an from being easily categorized as African American, yet that is exactly how most of it has been studied, largely because Piper has used herself and her own experiences with racism as the raw material for much of her artistic practice. In her 1988 video installation Cornered, for example, viewers watch as Piper tells them. “I’m black.” Over the course of the video, however, the decision to call one’s self black is reframed as a moral issue rather than a matter of genetics or parentage. In the process, Piper casts the possibility of racial identity into doubt. Why don’t most art critics notice?1

Since before 1972, when she first confronted matters of race directly in her Mythic Being Series, Piper has always marked the distinction between herself and the role she performs as artist in her theatricalized work. While she uses “personal content”—stories about her own experiences—in some of her work, these anecdotes are carefully chosen and presented tools used to make ideas concrete rather than to make her personal life and emotions the subject of her art. Nevertheless, art historians and critics frequently characterize Piper as an angry black woman whose work blames viewers for the lifetime of racist and sexist discrimination she has endured. Such accounts typically imply that Pipers work is divisive, because black audience members are expected to sympathize with the artist while white viewers may experience only guilt or outrage. Some of Piper’s critics respond by diagnosing her as the distraught victim, lashing out unfairly at liberal museumgoers who would otherwise take her side. Even writers more in tune with Piper’s project interpret her work as autobiography. In the 1970s, for example, feminist art critics Lucy Lippard and Cindy Nemser both explained Piper’s Mythic Being as the manifestation of the artist’s “male ego,” despite formal aspects that cast the series as a critical and self-conscious performance of race, gender, sexuality, and class.2

In The Mythic Being: I/You (Her) of 1974, Piper transforms her appearance over a series of ten photographs of herself, taken in junior high school, beside another young woman, a classmate and friend. As with most of the Mythic Being photographs. Piper has added comic-strip-style thought bubbles in the I/You (Her) sequence by drawing, painting, and writing directly on the surfaces of the photographs. In this sequence, her face is slowly darkened while her companions remains unchanged. Pipers features are altered and exaggerated; she acquires sunglasses and a mustache; her hair grows into what she…

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Deconstructing the Truism of Race as a Social Construct

Posted in Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, Videos on 2018-11-12 22:22Z by Steven

Deconstructing the Truism of Race as a Social Construct

Hammer Museum
University of California, Los Angeles
10899 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90024

Naomi Zack, Professor of Philosophy
University of Oregon

Rebecca Tuvel, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee

Diarmuid Costello, Associate Professor of Philosophy
University of Warwick

Philosophers Naomi Zack of the University of Oregon, Rebecca Tuvel of Rhodes College, and Diarmuid Costello of the University of Warwick discuss the ways in which Adrian Piper’s art interrogates racial identity, focusing on specific works as well as Piper’s own writings about race, “Passing for White, Passing for Black” and Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir.

Adrian Piper, Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features, 1981
Pencil on paper. 10 × 8 in. (25.4 × 20.3 cm). The Eileen Harris Norton Collection © Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

View the discussion (03:04:11) here.

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For anyone who is doubtful of the sheer absurdity of racial categorization and the porousness of our supposed boundaries, the Piper family history can be instructive.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2018-06-30 03:08Z by Steven

For anyone who is doubtful of the sheer absurdity of racial categorization and the porousness of our supposed boundaries, the Piper family history can be instructive. Adrian Margaret Smith Piper was born in 1948 in Washington Heights, and raised there and on Riverside Drive. On her paternal side, she is the product of a long line of whites and extremely light-skinned, straight-haired black property owners and, on her mother Olive’s side, mixed-race, planter-class Jamaican immigrants. Her father, Daniel, received two separate and contradictory birth certificates. The first one labeled him as “white,” while the second, which his mother demanded as a corrective, put him down as “octoroon.” (At MoMA, they are hung on the wall, as part of the installation of “Cornered.”) Piper’s paternal grandfather, also Daniel, went the opposite route after the birth of his second, slightly darker son, Billy, abandoning his wife and children and moving out West to start a new “white” family in Washington State. Daniel Sr.’s brother, Piper’s great-uncle, William, lived his life as a Caucasian man of distinction, founding the Piper Aircraft Corporation and making his name as “the Henry Ford of Aviation.” He ended up with his face on a postage stamp and a fortune big enough to endow a building at his alma mater, Harvard.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, “Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?The New York Times Magazine, June 27, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/magazine/adrian-pipers-self-imposed-exile-from-america-and-from-race-itself.html.

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Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2018-06-30 01:10Z by Steven

Adrian Piper’s Show at MoMA is the Largest Ever for a Living Artist. Why Hasn’t She Seen It?

The New York Times Magazine

Thomas Chatterton Williams

Illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng

The conceptual artist’s life and work push against the boundaries

Adrian Piper, the conceptual artist and analytic philosopher, is almost as well known for what she has stopped doing as for what she has done. By 1985, she had given up alcohol, meat and sex. In 2005, she took a leave of absence from her job at Wellesley, sold her home on Cape Cod and shipped all of her belongings to Germany. On a lecture tour in the United States the next year, she discovered a mark on her plane ticket that suggested, to her, that she’d been placed on a watch list; she has not set foot in America since. Then, in 2012, on her 64th birthday, she “retired from being black.” She did this by uploading a digitally altered self-portrait to her website, in which she had darkened her skin — normally café très-au-lait — to the color of elephant hide. It was accompanied by a news bulletin announcing her retirement. The pithy text superimposed at the bottom of the photo elaborated: “Henceforth, my new racial designation will be neither black nor white but rather 6.25% grey, honoring my 1/16th African heritage,” she wrote. “Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control!” (Through extensive genealogical work, she later determined that her African heritage is closer to one-eighth.)

The piece was, like much of Piper’s art and writing, absurdly comical in no small part because it was so brutally honest. It was inspired by Piper’s dawning realization that she was unable to fulfill other people’s expectations through the lens of race; since the early 2000s, she had stopped allowing any of her artwork to be exhibited in all-black shows, which she came to see as ghettoizing. In 2015, she announced that she would no longer talk to the press about her work.

Such inflexibility has done little to damage her standing in the art world. On a drizzly evening in March, a well-turned-out crowd of several hundred alighted upon the Museum of Modern Art to sip prosecco, schmooze and Instagram snippets of Piper’s immense body of work. The occasion was the opening of the enormous, and enormously demanding for the casual viewer, 50-year career retrospective, “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016,” on display through July 22. The exhibition draws its title from Kant’sCritique of Pure Reason,” a lifelong touchstone for Piper, and marks the first time in MoMA’s history that the work of any living artist has earned the entirety of its sprawling sixth-floor special-exhibitions gallery. Alongside a Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale, which Piper won in 2015, this is among the very highest honors the art world can proffer…

‘‘Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features’’ (1981)
The Eileen Harris Norton Collection. Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin.

I’d flown from Paris to see the opening of “Synthesis” after having struck up a polite but formal email correspondence with Piper. In the last message she had sent me, about three weeks earlier, she refused to speak to me on the record unless she or her archivist could independently fact-check the article before publication. “I decided a long time ago that I would prefer no representation to misrepresentation,” she wrote, and it seemed that, with this impossible condition, she would not grant an exemption from her indefinite moratorium. She suggested, as an alternative, that I consult her website and extensive body of published writing, an incalculable number of academic articles, essays and books. But I had already read many of those, and they had left me convinced that she has been quietly conducting, from that vexed and ever-expanding blot on the American fabric where white and black bleed into each other, one of the smartest, funniest and most profound interrogations of the racial madness that governs and stifles our national life that I had ever encountered…

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The Life-Giving Art of Adrian Piper

Posted in Articles, Arts, Autobiography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2018-05-25 02:44Z by Steven

The Life-Giving Art of Adrian Piper


Rebecca Carroll, Editor of Special Projects
WNYC New York Public Radio, New York, New York


I went to college at a small, private liberal arts school in rural Massachusetts on a full financial scholarship. There I navigated two sets of friends: my black friends, and my white friends. The school was, of course, predominantly white, but the students of color created a strong and robust community. For the first couple of years, though, still legit messed up by being adopted by a white family and raised in an all-white town, I placed an inordinate amount of value on proximity to white folks. So I went ahead and kept up with them Saab-driving, co-op shift-having, jazz-loving white friends, who largely performed their wokeness and ignored or exotified my blackness. Enter: the conceptual artist Adrian Piper, who pretty much gave me my life…

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Adrian Piper: The Thinking Canvas

Posted in Articles, Arts, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2018-04-23 00:34Z by Steven

Adrian Piper: The Thinking Canvas

The New York Times

Holland Cotter, Co-Chief Art Critic

Adrian Piper’s “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features,” 1981. In all of her work, our critic writes, “her aim is not to assert racial identity but to destabilize the very concept of it.”
The Eileen Harris Norton Collection, via Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin

She’s an artist and scholar, and at “A Synthesis of Intuitions” you see thinking — about gender, racism, art — happening before your eyes.

Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016” at the Museum of Modern Art is a clarifying and complicating 50-year view of a major American artist’s career. It is also an image-altering event for MoMA itself. It makes the museum feel like a more life-engaged institution than the formally polished one we’re accustomed to.

Despite the show’s retrospective cast, we find fiery issues of the present — racism, misogyny, xenophobia — burning in MoMA’s pristine galleries. The reality that art and its institutions are political to the core — both for what they do and do not say — comes through. And the museum, for once, seems intent on asserting this. For the first time it has given over all of its sixth floor special exhibition space to a single living artist. The artist so honored is a woman, who has focused on, among many other things, the hard fact of racism and the fiction of race.

Ms. Piper was born in New York City in 1948 to parents of mixed racial background. (Her father held two official birth certificates. In one he was designated white, in the other octoroon, one-eighth black.) Raised in a cosmopolitan environment, she studied at the Art Students League in her teens, and in 1966 enrolled at the School of Visual Arts. The MoMA show opens with a salon-style hanging of figurative paintings, including self-portraits, from that time, influenced by 1960 psychedelic graphics and by her youthful experiences with LSD

Read the entire review here.

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From the Archives: Adrian Piper’s “Blacks, Whites and Other Mythic Beings”

Posted in Articles, Arts, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2016-01-05 01:58Z by Steven

From the Archives: Adrian Piper’s “Blacks, Whites and Other Mythic Beings”

Art in America
2015-05-29 (Orignially published November 2001)

Eleanor Heartney

Adrian Piper, the uncompromising Berlin-based American artist and philosopher whose work applies the rigorous strictures of conceptual art to questions of race and identity, was awarded a Golden Lion award at the 56th Venice Biennale earlier this month. Piper received the honor for her participation in “All the World’s Futures,” where she showed The Probable Trust Registry. The piece asks participants to pledge to live by one or more of the following tenets: “I will mean everything I say”; “I will do everything I say I will do”; and “I will always be too expensive to buy.”

In this A.i.A. article from the November 2001 issue, reproduced below, contributing editor Eleanor Heartney reflects on Piper’s tendency “to favor the confrontational over the conciliatory” on the occasion of several traveling retrospectives of her work.

Blacks, Whites and Other Mythic Beings

By Eleanor Heartney

Adrian Piper has long pursued twin careers in art and philosophy. In response to a traveling retrospective, the author ponders the artistic consequences—and seeming contradictions—of Piper’s analytical observations about race.

Does race exist? Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others, believes not. Labeling race a biological myth, the Harvard scholar has added that from a social and political perspective, race is best understood as a metaphor for something else and not an essence or a thing in itself. [1]

Adrian Piper’s career has been, in one sense, an exploration of this theory. As a light-skinned black woman who, she points out in works like Colored (1988) and My Calling (Cards), 1986-90, could easily pass for white, Piper questions the validity of racial categorization and examines the prevalence of social stereotyping. If race cannot be defined by science or be determined by a person’s visual appearance, she asks, why does it continue to retain such a powerful hold on the human psyche? And what, if anything, can be done to expose its artificiality in a way that will destroy its power?

Many artists have explored the subject of race in recent years, but Piper has been conducting her inquiry from a rather uncommon position. For the last quarter century she has pursued parallel careers as a visual artist with an extensive international exhibition history and as a professor of philosophy, currently on the faculty of Wellesley College. If autobiography provided the starting point for her exploration of race and racism, philosophy has shaped the form of her inquiries. But in the process, the application of abstract philosophical principles to this seemingly intractable social problem produces certain contradictions which suggest that even Piper is not immune to the insidious fictions of race…

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Everyone’s Problem: Adrian Piper Tackles the Complexities of Race Relations Head-On

Posted in Articles, Arts, Autobiography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Women on 2016-01-05 00:50Z by Steven

Everyone’s Problem: Adrian Piper Tackles the Complexities of Race Relations Head-On


Artspace Editors

Adrian Piper receiving her Golden Lion from the 2015 Venice Biennale

The artist and philosopher Adrian Piper’s direct and subtly intellectual approach to unpacking the tangled issues of race, gender, identity, and belonging has inspired a generation of socially-conscious artists across all media, although her impact is just now being fully recognized: she was the recipient of the Golden Lion for best artist at this year’s Venice Biennale, and MoMA has recently announced plans for, in the words of Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times, “the most comprehensive exhibition to date on the conceptual artist,” set to open in 2018. In this excerpt from Phaidon’s Defining Contemporary Art, the curator Connie Butler responds to one of Piper’s most important video and installation works, Cornered from 1988.

Adrian Piper’s conceptual explorations of race and difference have made her a critical influence on subsequent generations of artists exploring race and the construction of identity. By 1988—after two decades in which she moved from a relatively traditional conceptual art practice to using her own body in her work, and to locating her subject matter in the fluidity of identity—she had begun to explore her own struggles with racial identity: namely, people’s assumptions about her race and their corresponding behavior towards her.

The pivotal video installation Cornered addresses this in the straightforward, analytical fashion common to all of Piper’s work. Viewers encounter the artist herself, a light-skinned black woman, looking out at them from a monitor placed in the corner of a room. On either side of it hang her father’s two birth certificates—one that identifies him as white, the other as black. A large table upended in front of the monitor distances us from all this, keeping Piper at a remove in space. Despite this, the artist faces us calmly and begins matter-of-factly. “I’m black. Now, let’s deal with this social fact, and the fact of my stating it, together. Maybe you don’t see why we have to deal with it together. Maybe you think this is just my problem, and that I should deal with it by myself. But it’s not just my problem. It’s our problem.”…

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Passing for White, Passing for Black

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States, Women on 2013-04-02 03:42Z by Steven

Passing for White, Passing for Black

Number 58 (1992)
pages 4-32

Adrian Piper

It was the New Graduate Student Reception for my class, the first social event of my first semester in the best graduate department in my field in the country. I was full of myself, as we all were, full of pride at having made the final cut, full of arrogance at our newly recorded membership among the privileged few, the intellectual elite, this country’s real aristocracy, my parents told me; full of confidence in our intellectual ability to prevail, to fashion original and powerful views about some topic we represented to ourselves only vaguely. I was a bit late, and noticed that many turned to look at – no, scrutinize me as I entered the room. I congratulated myself on having selected for wear my black velvet, bell-bottomed pants suit (yes, it was that long ago) with the cream silk blouse and crimson vest. One of the secretaries who’d earlier helped me find an apartment came forward to greet me and proceeded to introduce me to various members of the faculty, eminent and honorable faculty, with names I knew from books I’d studied intensely and heard discussed with awe and reverence by my undergraduate teachers. To be in the presence of these men and attach faces to names was delirium enough. But actually to enter into casual social conversation with them took every bit of poise I had. As often happens in such situations, I went on automatic pilot. I don’t remember what I said; I suppose I managed not to make a fool of myself. The most famous and highly respected member of the faculty observed me for awhile from a distance and then came forward. Without introduction or preamble he said to me with a triumphant smirk, “Miss Piper, you’re about as black as I am.”

One of the benefits of automatic pilot in social situations is that insults take longer to make themselves felt. The meaning of the words simply don’t register right away, particularly if the person who utters them is smiling. You reflexively respond to the social context and the smile rather than to the words. And so I automatically returned the smile and said something like, “Really? I hadn’t known that about you.” – something that sounded both innocent and impertinent, even though that was not what I felt. What I felt was numb, and then shocked and terrified, disoriented, as though I’d been awakened from a sweet dream of unconditional support and approval and plunged into a nightmare of jeering contempt. Later those feelings turned into wrenching grief and anger that one of my intellectual heroes had sullied himself in my presence and destroyed my illusion that these privileged surroundings were benevolent and safe; then guilt and remorse at having provided him the occasion for doing so.

Finally, there was the groundless shame of the inadvertent impostor, exposed to public ridicule or accusation. For this kind of shame, you don’t actually need to have done anything wrong. All you need to do is care about others’ image of you, and fail in your actions to reinforce their positive image of themselves. Their ridicule and accusations then function to both disown and degrade you from their status, to mark you not as having done wrong but as being wrong. This turns you into something bogus relative to their criterion of worth, and false relative to their criterion of authenticity. Once exposed as a fraud of this kind, you can never regain your legitimacy. For the violated criterion of legitimacy implicitly presumes an absolute incompatibility between the person you appeared to be and the person you are now revealed to be; and no fraud has the authority to convince her accusers that they merely imagine an incompatibility where there is none in fact. The devaluation of status consequent on such exposure is, then, absolute; and the suspicion of fraudulence spreads to all areas of interaction.

Mr. S. looked sternly at Mrs. P., and with an imperious air said, “You a colored woman? You’re no negro. Where did you come from? If you’re a negro, where are your free papers to show it?” … As he went away he looked at Mr. Hill and said, ‘”She’s no negro.”
The Rev. H. Mattison, Louisa Picquet, The Octoroon Slave and Concubine: A Tale of Southern Slave Life (1861), 43.

The accusation was one I had heard before, but more typically from other blacks. My family was one of the very last middle-class, light-skinned black families left in our Harlem neighborhood after most had fled to the suburbs; visibly black working-class kids my age yanked my braids and called me “Paleface.” Many of them thought I was white, and treated me accordingly. As an undergraduate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I attended an urban university to which I walked daily through a primarily black working-class neighborhood. Once a black teenaged youth called to me, “Hey, white girl! Give me a quarter!” I was feeling strong that day, so I retorted, “I’m not white and I don’t have a quarter!” He answered skeptically, “You sure look white! You sure act white!” And I have sometimes met blacks socially who, as a condition of social acceptance of me, require me to prove my blackness by passing the Suffering Test: They recount at length their recent experiences of racism and then wait expectantly, skeptically, for me to match theirs with mine. Mistaking these situations for a different one in which an exchange of shared experiences is part of the bonding process, I instinctively used to comply. But I stopped when I realized that I was in fact being put through a third degree. I would share some equally nightmarish experience along similar lines, and would then have it explained to me why that wasn’t really so bad, why it wasn’t the same thing at all, or why I was stupid for allowing it to happen to me. So the aim of these conversations clearly was not mutual support or commiseration. That came only after I managed to prove myself by passing the suffering Test of blackness (if I did), usually by shouting down or destroying their objections with logic…

…Trying to forgive and understand those of my relatives who have chosen to pass for white has been one of the most difficult ethical challenges of my life, and I don’t consider myself to have made very much progress. At the most superficial level, this decision can be understood in terms of a cost-benefit analysis: Obviously, they believe they will be happier in the white community than in the black one, all things considered. For me to make sense of this requires that I understand—or at least accept—their conception of happiness, as involving higher social status, entrenchment within the white community and corresponding isolation from the black one, and greater access to the rights, liberties and privileges the white community takes for granted. What is harder for me to grasp is how they could want these things enough to sacrifice the history, wisdom, connectedness and moral solidarity with their family and community they must sacrifice in order to get them. It seems to require so much severing and forgetting, so much disowning and distancing, not simply from one’s shared past, but from one’s former self—as though one had cauterized one’s long-term memory at the moment of entry into the white community….

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